ST. LOUIS — All the numbers for this weekend’s matchup point to a long day for the Rams’ run defense.
Dallas boasts the league’s second-best rushing offense with 173.5 yards per game, and St. Louis ranks a dismal 29th with an average of 171 yards allowed. The NFL’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, has had the two most productive games of his career against the Rams, including a 175-yard performance in a 31-7 rout last season.
"He runs hard," says linebacker James Laurinaitis, who started that game as well as the matchup during Murray’s rookie season in 2011, when he exploded for 253 yards in a 34-7 blowout. "They’ve got a good scheme. I think this team knows what to expect now from their scheme, from their personnel, so we’ve been challenged by our coaching staff."
In the past, Dallas might have helped by favoring an air attack, often with disastrous results. But whether it’s because Tony Romo appears to be limited since offseason back surgery or because coach Jason Garrett finally realized the value of his greatest weapon, Murray ranks second in the league with 51 carries.
Finding motivation shouldn’t be difficult, but Laurinaitis and others know that’s just the starting point if they’re going to turn things around this week. An injury to Chris Long in the third quarter of the season opener certainly didn’t help, but the Rams’ vaunted front seven hasn’t come close to meeting expectations.
The reasons for the struggles are plentiful, but the most obvious has been poor tackling, especially against smaller, shifty runners such as Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson and Tampa Bay’s Ben Rainey. Both young players set career highs by frequently getting to the outside and slipping through arm tackles of much bigger Rams defenders.
Those weaknesses will only be amplified by Murray, an agile, 217-pound back capable of finesse and running over defensive backs. Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers says Murray excels at jumping from gap to gap and faking out unsuspecting defenders.
Speed may not be his biggest strength, but he had enough to run 91 yards for a touchdown in Dallas three seasons ago. One would hope that will be a good reminder for the Rams to take good pursuit angles, but St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher says teams often underestimate Murray’s speed and allow him to reach the corner.
"When you watch him, you kind of watch his strides; they’re long but he’s like a gazelle," Brockers says. "He can get up and put them back down."
The lone triumph — hollow as it may have been — for the St. Louis run defense came in the home opener, when Adrian Peterson couldn’t come close to duplicating his 212 yards from a previous visit to the Edward Jones Dome. Maybe it’s a sign the Rams can stop anyone if they give him enough attention.
Swarming to the football and some great tackling in space by T.J. McDonald and others in the secondary were the keys to holding Peterson to 75 yards on 21 carries, an average day for most tailbacks. Similar efforts would go a long way toward containing another strong, physical former Oklahoma running back this Sunday.
"I like the way the front seven has been humbled this week," Laurinaitis says. "We have to execute better. That’s all we have to do."
Brockers and Robert Quinn both say players trying too hard to make the big plays have contributed to the problems, and Quinn says at certain times he’s thinking too much about the pass rush. Even that aspect of the defense has been considerably below par, though quick passes from opponents have played a part in limiting the Rams to just one sack after recording 53 last season, third-best in the league.
Statistics don’t always tell the full story, and St. Louis does at least have the concepts of "small sample size" and "law of averages" working in its favor this Sunday. But all those numbers remain quite troubling for a team in need of a win before an early bye week.
"They kept the ball for 41-plus minutes against Tennessee," Fisher says, referring to Dallas’ 26-10 win, in which Murray ran for 175 yards. "Tennessee’s got a good defense. Our defense has our work cut out for us."